LEWISTON — Walking through the halls of the McMahon Elementary School with his Palm Pilot, Paul Caron is able to check and program all the lights to make sure they’re set at the most efficient level.
Like a lot of schools, McMahon has “daylight harvesting lights,” which means sensors read how much natural light is coming from windows. When there’s enough natural light, the artificial lights automatically dim.
From his office at the Dingley Building, Caron, director of Facilities and Projects for Lewiston schools, monitors Lewiston’s schools, checking the inside and outside temperatures, that day’s weather forecast, and tweaks heat settings to ensure no more energy is used than necessary.
That attention to detail, combined with energy improvements the school department has made to buildings in the last two years, has prompted the school department to be called a leader in energy savings, according to the head of Efficiency Maine.
John Brautigam, director of Efficiency Maine, has visited Lewiston schools, and described Lewiston schools as a role model for other districts.
At the Geiger Elementary School, Brautigam noticed a display in the main lobby that shows the building’s energy use. “People can look up and see if the school is having a good energy day,” he said. That raises awareness.
He’s looked over Lewiston’s energy data which shows “less consumption. You can really see the difference. … It’s a tribute to Paul Carol,” who has shown school board members, the superintendent and teachers how much can be saved. “If we had 100 other people in Maine like Paul, we’d solve school districts energy problems,” Brautigam said.
According to an analysis by Caron, Lewiston is saving about $263,465 on heat a year, $144,242 on electricity, for a combined annual saving of about $407,700. Those numbers come from comparing two years ago to this year, as of May 7.
One illustration is the McMahon school, an older building built in the 1960s. Energy improvements made at McMahon has fetched the 2010 Best Energy Project in Maine award from the Association of Energy Engineers.
The costs for the energy saving changes at McMahon — new windows, a new light and heating system — is about $2.25 million, which will take about eight years to pay back, Caron said.
In the last two years McMahon’s annual electric bill went from $46,018 to $34,973; heating from $68,624 to $21,610. Some of the heating savings is from this year’s warmer winter, and some is due to the energy improvements.
Like other Lewiston schools, one big change at McMahon is the lights.
In addition to cutting costs and reducing pollution, the lighting system can improve student performance. Studies show students taught in classrooms with more natural light scored up to 25 percent higher on tests than students in the same school district, Brautigam said.
Another big change is a new heating system. Last summer efficient natural gas boilers were installed, replacing oil boilers. The new system burns cleaner, uses less energy, is zoned, and has variable speed motors that only provide the amount of heat needed, Caron said.
It used to be if a teacher at one end of the building turned up the thermostat in one classroom, at the other end of the building “more rooms would get hot, more windows would get open, more thermostats would kick,” Caron said. “These you can run at different levels.”